I remember as a boy making a trip to Melbourne to visit my aunts, getting off the Cotham Road tram at Studley Park Road, Kew. At its lower end I would see what seemed even then an anachronism – an old cabman with his horse drawn Hansom Cab waiting for a fare to the Kew Asylum. To this teenage boy it was suggestive of a set from an Oscar Wilde play or a Conan Doyle scene, a reminder of Matthew Arnold’s phrase "Poised between two worlds, one dead, the other waiting to be born."
I would walk up the road to Merrion Place where the extraordinary woman I called Aunty Nance lived. She was the Contessa Nance Filippini. She had attended Sydney University with Frank Sheed and remained his close friend. She herself was no mean theologian and she was the conductor of St Patrick’s Cathedral Boys’ Choir.
Cartoon: Graham English
By perusing a boy’s hands, her expertly practised eye could tell the precise day on which his voice would break. It was then only twenty years since the death of the last of the Italian castrati, Alessandro Moreschi, leaving behind him a legacy of seventeen primitive gramophone discs. So he lived into the age of the gramophone, dying in 1922. He had once been the director of the Sistine Chapel Choir in the Vatican and their soloist. So two centuries of the Roman tradition of castrati was not long ended. The expressed need for the castration of little boys was to close off the possibility of allowing women sopranos being admitted to the liturgical choirs, very much the same sort of reason that Cardinal Ratzinger has for the closing of the entry of women into the ranks of the priesthood. The castrati were, by and large, young boys from the desperately poor classes. The phenomenon is a reminder of what male clerics have been prepared to do to keep women out.
At the other end of Studley Park Road was the Good Shepherd Convent which was like a walled city with hundreds of inhabitants. Three of my mother’s sisters had entered there. All in all they gave a cumulative one hundred years in vowed service to this archdiocese, at Abbotsford and Oakleigh. Looking back through the eyes of experience, the Good Shepherd Convents represented a lot of love and dedication and self-sacrifice on the part of those nuns as well as the consistent standing for the dignity of women. There was also an institutional factor that tended to suppress the finer points of responsible living for all who were enclosed within the walls. As Brendan Lovett, an Irish Columban priest who works in the Philippines, once said, "Institutions exist to suppress meaning."
I mention my family’s contribution to the archdiocese of Melbourne with some pride but also in a spirit of reconciliation acknowledging that the colonisation of Aborigines continues to occur through institutional power and has helped to push them down rather than act as a liberating factor. These pluses and minuses I would suggest have been the case in Naomi Mayer’s life as also in Beverley’s, her sister, and made them the extraordinary people of leadership in the Aboriginal community that they have turned out to be. [Naomi Myers (nee Briggs), chief executive officer of the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service, spoke at the Melbourne launch of Ted’s book.]
I have been hearing whispers of complaint coming, I think, from people who have not read my book, that I have no right to stick my nose into another state and another diocese. But the phenomenon of globalisation pays no heed to such attempts at containment. The national media has its impact on the whole of Australia. It refuses to be localised.
One of my major complaints about the Catholic Church in its Australian form is that it lacks imaginative expression. I believe a lot of this blandness has its roots in Ireland itself after the famine when Cardinal Paul Cullen took enormous control of the Celtic Church typified by his influence over the Synod of Thurles.
The Irish theologian and Galway parish priest, Leon 0 Morchain, has this to say about the rupture in the cultural tradition of Celtic piety and liturgical prayer: "What is truly unbelievable is that a liberated church should so turn its back on a wealth of tradition. What is difficult to understand is that this should happen in a country whose initial evangelisation was so complete, precisely because its early apostles had accepted the existing pagan culture and Christianised it. By a curious turn of events it has been alleged that our own Irish missionaries into African and Eastern cultures had forgotten the Patrician model and tried to Europeanise their converts in order to Christianise them. Were they also conditioned by the recent history of the church at home? An annoying aspect of the change of direction is that it was undoubtedly undertaken with the very best of motives. The figure of Paul Cullen looms large in the story of the change of direction. Just when a strong leader could have undone the gradual decline of 1829-1850, Paul Cullen was sent to Ireland from Rome. Truly Roman in thinking, he set out to reorganise the Irish Church on Roman lines as well as to correct some undoubted abuses. This he did mainly at the Synod of Thurles in 1850. With hindsight it is hard to credit some of the measures that were taken by that synod. In the new programme for reform housestations [home Masses] were to be done away with.
"The entire corpus of traditional prayer was, for whatever reason, pushed aside and a plethora of continental-type devotions recommended to the faithful. Sodalities, novenas, processions, benedictions, medals, confraternaties and other such societies, were presented to a people for whom they were insipid compared to the salty Celtic flavour of the religious sustenance that they had known. It was a bad century for Irish spirituality, one from which we have not yet recovered. True, the many famines took a severe toll on the members of God’s people in Ireland, but there was an invisible famine which was gradually starving the Irish soul of what was its life… It was fortunate indeed for the West that McHale of Tuam did not succumb. He withstood the change at every stage: his own catechism, his disregard for many of the Thurles decrees in practice. So, for instance, the house-stations have survived, pre-dominantly in the West." (Enda McDonagh, Faith and the Hungry Grass: A Mayo Theology.)
The strangulation of Celtic prayer forms had a lot to do with the closing off of the Celtic language and that loss was reflected in the Church in Australia. It was an extraordinary piece of luck that the same John Mc Hale, "the lion of the West" and archbishop in Mayo, should have translated the Greek Illiad into Gaelic in the 1820s. It allowed Francis McNamara to extemporise what Les Murray has described as the first great poem written in the English language in Australia, The Convict’s Tour of Hell: and it allowed a group of Irish convicts in New South Wales in 1839 to understand and memorise it. With later cultural absorption, that language was to dry up and be replaced with a Church language following the Roman pattern. The church we are in this evening received its title, Saints Peter and Paul’s, at the end of the 1860s, a high water-mark of Roman centralism.
A penal cross: impressed with key
scriptural motifs for meditation, and
constructed with shortened transepts
for discreet carrying under a sleeve.
Photo: Chris Donaldson
One of my own forebears, I am proud to say, was an Irish convict, sent to Australia for life in 1831. At least we are now indebted to the British Government for meticulous convict records. There is evidence that tattooed on his right arm was the Penal Cross, redolent with the ancient Celtic poetic expression of the God of the sun, moon and stars. The same Cornelius Wholohan is mentioned in a new book on the pioneer priest John Joseph Therry by Sydney priest John McSweeney.
In the Christian Celtic tradition, according to Esther De Waal, "they hailed the morning sun as they would a great person come back to their land, and the new moon ‘the great lamp of grace’, with joyous acclaim."
It has been no accident that our Australian Catholic school tradition has taken on board all the Catholic poets who have shown their hands as baptised Catholics, while neglecting those fine poets that do not share this tradition, e.g. John Shaw Neilson, Oodgeeroo Noonuccal, Jack Davis and Kevin Gilbert. Too often the poem was used as a piece of apologetics rather than for its own sake. This is how Frank McCourt explains how his Catholic schooling ignored the non-Catholic Sean O’Casey, the playwright who could conjure up the sounds and sights and stench of Dublin poverty.
Judith Wright’s insights
Judith Wright, whose death occurred this month, had a way of writing poetry that could reverse the meaningless platitudes and expose the smug male self-congratulation which pretended to be called God-language. I quote her in my book in the context of arrogant human claims pretending to fill the place of God. "I must say I cringe when I remember, well before the crisis of Humane Vitae, those old pious women, their rosary beads rattling against the confessional grille, desperately anguished over what were really the man-fabricated clerically controlled ‘sins’ like sewing on Sundays. Judith Wright talks about that in her poem, Eli, Eli:
Soldiers and elders drowning in the river,
the pitiful women drowning in the river.
The children’s faces staring from the river –
that was his cross, and not the cross they gave him.
To hold the invisible wand, and not to save them –
to know them turned to death, and yet not save them;
only to cry to them and not to save them,
knowing that no one but themselves could save them –
this was the wound, more than the wound they dealt him.
To hold out love and know they would not take it,
to hold out faith and know they dared not take it –
the invisible wand, and none would see or take it;
thus they betrayed him, not with the tongue’s betrayal.
He watched, and they were drowning in the river,
faces like sodden flowers in the river,
faces of children moving in the river;
and all the while, he knew there was no river.
Tim Bonyhady, an art historian, asserted (Sydney Morning Herald 15/7/00) that Judith Wright’s poetry suffered in her distraction into activism. I found what he said disappointing, in that nowhere does he credit Judith herself with any opinion at all about the debate over the so-called tension between poetry and her impulse to fight social causes. It appears to me a tribute to the accuracy of her own self awareness that she could accept that her capacity to write poetry could not be divorced from her need to express shame and responsibility regarding Aborigines, and for the destruction of the environment. She saw herself as now "grown up". In her maturity she developed a real concern for Aborigines and what whites had done to their race. She saw her activism as the expression of the one poetic sensibility where the same sensual passion was at work and all the different levels of concern played the same tune. "It’s communication and memorability that make a good poem. It’s got to be memorable enough to keep it with you," she said.
There is in her early poems a marvellous innocence which soothes but also stuns the mind. So evocative of that high New England tableland where she was born, "South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country/ rises that tableland, high delicate outline,! Of bony slopes, wincing under the winter." (South of My Days). And "Grass is across the wagontracks/ and plough, strikes bone across the grass/ and vineyards cover all the slopes/ where the dead teams were used to pass." (Bullocky).
Keen eye for the land
A pivotal change occurred in her life when she realised that much of the landscape she had been celebrating was in fact tailored to a foreign shape. She, with a henceforth more keenly penetrative eye, learned to understand the blending of the land with its people and so to love and revere them both, "I’ve no wish to chisel things into new shapes.! The remnant of a mountain has its own meaning." (Rockface).
In South of My Days, Veronica Brady quotes her: "The language and culture I was brought up in had nothing to do with the land my relatives had taken. It was wholly imported, a second skin that never fitted, no matter how we pulled and dragged it over the landscape that we live in. Nor, of course, did we ourselves fit. That fact was growing more obvious as the land changed under our hands."
Look at the voluminous amount of effort Judith Wright put into reconciliation with Aboriginal people. In her letter to Kath Walker – Oodgeroo Noonuccal she wrote: "I am born of the conquerors/ you of the persecuted." In her For a Pastoral Family she called to her brothers for their awareness:
of the edible leaf of this country
left all the margins of action, a rural security
and left to me
what serves a base for poetry,
a doubtful song that has a dying fall.
It is hard not to be impressed with the spirit that set her apart from so many Australian poets who have been spectacular in their neglect of white racism, or quite explicit in their own racist feelings. I am thinking of Henry Lawson and Henry Kendall and also the ugly poem of James Brunton Stephens To a Black Gin. Judith Wright’s efforts to call white Australia to account in her book We Call for a Treaty, her impassioned warnings over the threat to the environment, her incredibly honest and painstaking classic family history, Cry for the Dead, where she acted as her own revisionist – all of these show the full flowering of a poet’s soul. In his introduction to We Call for a Treaty, Charles Rowley said that "those who seem to threaten the social order from below become objects offear and envy". This has been the effect of Judith’s life on the complacency of the average Australian.
However, Judith Wright will surely stand in history as sharing the grandeur of Mary Gilmore and Nugget Coombs. She was able, with no "theology" at all, to cherish the natural world with a tenderness and hopefulness that would reduce to fumbling ineptitude most Christian preachers. I am not suggesting that they should become poets themselves, just that they should be aware of the constitutive role of poetry in the formation of a social conscience. The same tap-root that transmits life to the summer blossom also provides the quiet sap for winter growth. "it takes emotional energy to write a poem", she said. When the vitality of youth became dim, she stopped writing poetry. But love persevered when passion faded. Hope for the land and for its people brilliantly survives. "A poetic sensibility is one that responds to the world with kindness and hope," she said.
"Every tree, " she once said, "has a right to exist." In one of her last poems she wrote, "I sit here now intent! on poetry’s ancient vow to celebrate lovelong/ life’s wholeness, spring’s return, the flesh’s tune/ . ..there’s an essential music still, a moon! where no man’s walked." She died two weeks after participating in the Reconciliation Walk in Canberra.
Speaking against bonds
Finally, to quote from the last page of my book: "Today I can offer the one lesson gained through the enduring years, the poet Keats’ own: ‘I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections, and the truth of the imagination’ (Letter to Bailey, 22/11/1817).
"Dom Helder Camara was advised in his youth to mistrust imagination as it could compromise his priesthood: ‘But,’ he said, ‘I am not afraid of imagination. Imagination is like a sister: a sister that can help us immensely. It helps me see things, to understand creation, to understand God.’
"Our Church will remain dysfunctional while ever it remains lop-sided. When the people of imagination take up their rightful voice, then it will be revealing fidelity to a true incarnational focus. A spirit of imagination and adventure will be required in the future for the paradigm shift to centre our theology on a wholesome environment for the whole of humanity. It will have entered into that deeper ecumenism calling us all to denounce as perfidious those fatal technologies poised to ‘pull out the very soil from under the feet of humanity’ (Ivan Illich).
"In the words of Ezra Pound:
Go also to the nerve-wracked, go to the enslaved-by-convention,
… Go as a great wave of cool water,
Bear a contempt of oppressors.
Speak against unconscious oppression,
Speak against the tyranny of the unimaginative,
Speak against bonds."